What is adaptive reuse?

Article By:

Intern | Environmental Designer

The adage "the greenest building is the one that already exists" has never rung truer than it does today!

With the consequences of climate change, developers worldwide are looking for more sustainable ways to use the existing land for construction. As a result, the architectural sector has now turned towards adaptive reuse. 

Adaptive reuse is the rejuvenating and repurposing of existing buildings to convert them into more valuable structures. It involves infusing a new lease of life into a building that no longer serves any practical benefit to modern society.

For instance, you might often notice derelict churchyards, old windmills, or factories around your neighborhood. Real estate agents can buy these dilapidated establishments and convert them into parks, student housings, community centers, offices, or residential and multi-use complexes.

In this article, I will discuss why adaptive reuse has become the latest buzzword in the architectural sector and how it will only gain more prominence in the upcoming years. 

All About Adaptive Reuse

Promotes Sustainability

One of the central aspects of sustainability is the utilization of existing resources to their maximum potential. 

Any renovation or restoration project will emit tons of carbon dioxide and debris and use energy resources. As per the data collected by the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), construction and demolition projects generated a whopping 600 million tons of waste in 2018. 

To state that adaptive reuse completely negates environmental damage will be a high-flying claim. Still, the truth remains that it considerably circumvents the negative impact of construction projects on both a micro and macro-level.

Furthermore, the reuse of derelict and unproductive buildings can reduce the need for land acquisition and lower expensive construction costs. 

From what I understand, the uncertainty of the finances involved in reusing an old building has proved to be a barrier towards adaptive reuse becoming the norm. However, let me assure you that this is an illogical stance since renovating an old building is far more economically viable than rebuilding it or constructing a new structure from the get-go. 

Controls Urban Sprawl 

Taking a leaf out of what I said earlier, adaptive reuse doesn't involve removing trees or tampering with virgin land outside the city's vicinity to create urban agglomerations. It uses existing buildings within the city's setting to create functional structures. 

For example, take the Seaholm District in Austin. Initially, a dormant power plant in Texas' downtown area, the developers renovated it in 2013. It is now a high-rise building, housing restaurants, a library, offices, a hotel, and much more. 

Thus, this method checks the uncontrolled expansion of the urban areas, which leads to scarce land for agriculture, increased infrastructure costs, and increased pollution levels. 

Leverages Federal Historic Tax Credit

If a structure you're rehabilitating is on the National Register of Historic Places, it is eligible for the historic rehabilitation tax credit. The good news is it doesn't have to be centuries old; any historical building that is 50 years of age is liable for tax exemptions. 

However, there are certain boxes that the project should tick before that. 

First, the National Park Service should vet the developer's refurbishment plans. Second, the architects should retain the building's historical legacy while renovating it. If your project meets these demands, you become eligible for a rehabilitation credit of up to 20 per cent. 

Long story short, it's a brilliant opportunity for financing adaptive reuse projections. It is an advantage solely limited to the rebranding of historic properties. However, in my experience, most developers are not even aware of this incentive.

Preservation Of Heritage Sites

Usually, government bodies and the public are firmly against the demolition and tampering of historic structures. These buildings are a part of a country's culture and a reminder of its rich past. 

However, as land has become scarce, architects have now turned to heritage buildings to cater to the community's present needs. Infusing new life into a dilapidated building is more economical than constructing everything from scratch and dumping construction waste on landfills. 

With adaptive reuse, preservation of the culture and integrity of historical sites is possible. This is done by adopting greener architectural practices, in which the developers refurbish the building to ensure that it provides sufficient utility, both to the present and future generations. Often, the central focus is on redesigning and repurposing the interior, and the antiquity of the building's exterior remains intact. 

Thus, the heritage site's authenticity and grandeur continue to live on while the structure itself serves a new purpose. The uniqueness of these conserved spaces represents a distinct architectural past that modern construction cannot replicate. 

In New York, for instance, the High Line was initially an abandoned freight line that developers converted into a public park. Today, it has a walkway with neatly manicured shrubs on both ends, wildflowers, benches, and spaces designated for showcasing original artwork. 

Thus, what was once a dilapidated structure has become a vital spot for community gatherings. This revitalizes communities and promotes kinship. 

To Sum Up

Earlier, historical structures were viewed as sacred symbols of a community's glorious past--eternally untouchable and unparalleled in every aspect.

However, the pressing need for more land has propelled developers and government bodies to use the existing structures, changing them to suit present needs. Adaptive reuse does so not by demolishing it but by enhancing it, keeping its antiquity, and by adding a touch of modern functionality to it. 

Besides, the environmental benefits of this process are plenty. While I'm not claiming that it's the paradigm of sustainable construction, it is still something and much more economically and environmentally viable than creating a new structure from the get-go.

Therefore, the need of the hour is to adopt systematic ways to use pre-existing structures and create a sustainable model for future generations. 

I believe this is a surefire route for modern architecture to take, especially with the struggle to mitigate the lingering impact of a global pandemic and climate change in the coming decades.

Hardly a tough job for the urban development sector, is it? 


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